Microaggressions: How to Spot and Challenge Them

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What are Microaggressions?

Covert racism is actually just as damaging, or as some report, more damaging than overt racism. Derald Wing Sue, expert on microaggressions, defines them as “The everyday slights, indignities, put downs and insults that people of color, women, LGBT populations or those who are marginalized experiences in their day-to-day interactions with people.” Microaggressions can typically be broken down into three different categories:

Microinsult

These are defined as communications that convey rudeness and insensitivity. They typically characterize a person’s heritage or identity in a negative way and pathologize cultural values or communication styles.

Microassaults

A microassault is typically the most overt form of microaggressions. They are explicit identity derogations characterized primarily by violent verbal, nonverbal, or environmental attack meant to hurt the intended victim. They typically take the form of name-calling, avoidant behavior of particular identities, or purposeful discriminatory action.

Microinvalidation

These are communication that exclude, negate, or nullify the psychological thoughts, feeling, or experiential reality of a marginalized population. This includes gaslighting, color blindness, and the myth of meritocracy.

How to Cope with Microaggressions

Once you’ve done some work on being able to spot microaggressions you may wonder how to handle them in real time. The first thing to acknowledge is if you are the target, as this may impact how you want to move forward. Maintaining your safety and comfort always comes first. You are not crazy. Be assured that your experience is valid and your pain is real.

When you are the target of a microaggression my first recommendation is always check in and see if you need supportive care. There is no expectation for you to disarm the microaggression or confront the person if you are being targeted.

Some tips on seeking support are:

  • Seek out a trusted friend, colleague, or family member to confide in
  • Start therapy or join a support group
  • Seek community support

Disarming Microaggressions

If you are the target of a microaggression and you feel like you have emotional space to take it on, or if you are witnessing someone else being targeting by a microaggression, here are some ways to step in and disarm it:

Name what you see: 

Naming the microaggression in the moment gives language to describe the experience. By naming what you see my saying, “that is a microaggression,” “that is a racist comment,” or “that is a stereotype,” you force those with power and privilege to consider the roles they play in the perpetuation of oppression. By naming the microaggression you’re also validating the target’s experience and letting them know they are not alone.  

Interrupt the communication and redirect it:

Simply interrupt the person by directly or indirectly stopping statement and communicate your disagreement. This could include statements like, “let’s not go there,” or “I’m not okay with what you’re saying so I think we should end this conversation.”

State values and set limits 

Let the person know that respect and tolerance are important values in your life. Statements like, “you have a right to say what you want, I’m asking you to show a little more respect for me (and others) by not making offensive comments” can help to set boundaries. It can also be helpful to remind them of institutional rules (if it applies). This could include work place codes of conduct around denigration, prejudice, and discrimination.



Samantha Waldman (she/her) is a NYC-based psychotherapist and a Bridges Co-Founder. One of her passions in her work and education has been exploring biracial or multiracial identity, multiethnic identity, transracial adoption, and Asian-diaspora identity. Samantha received training at Teachers College, Columbia University, and currently works as a member of the Intuitive Healing Psychotherapy team and 

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